What is a Cognitive Bias?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 July 2014
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A cognitive bias is a flaw in judgment which is caused by memory, social attribution, and statistical errors. These biases are common to all humans, and many of them follow predictable and obvious patterns. Humans develop them for a range of reasons; they help the brain to process information quickly, for example, even when that processing is sometimes erroneous.

Understanding and recognizing cognitive bias in yourself and in others is a very useful skill. If you account for bias when evaluating a situation or someone's retelling of an event, you can make more accurate decisions which are based on fact, rather than on tricks of your mind. Bias is a powerful force in decision making, especially in groups, and it also skews our perspective of people and the world.

Should you find yourself on a jury at some point in your life, your knowledge of cognitive bias could be extremely important. It can make a witness extremely unreliable, and it is something that you should consider when listening to testimony. It also plays a role in your interpretation of the speeches from the prosecution and defense, and in how you look at witnesses in a courtroom.

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Hundreds of cognitive biases have been identified by social scientists. The selection below is very small, and the descriptions of these biases and the ways in which they work are truncated. If you want to learn more about specific cognitive biases, you can explore wiseGEEK for individual social psychology articles, or you might want to take a course in social psychology at your local college.

One cognitive bias which you are probably well acquainted with is the bandwagon effect, in which people tend to go along with what other members of a group are doing. This effect is part of a larger group of interesting social behaviors sometimes called “groupthink.” Speaking of groups, you might also be familiar with the effects of the ingroup bias, in which people tend to view “their” group as better and more diverse, while outsiders are collectively viewed as inferior.

You may also have been guilty at some point of projection bias, in which you make an assumption that other people think like you do. Projection bias can lead to the false consensus effect, in which people mistakenly believe that a group of people agrees on a subject when this is not, in fact, the case. In a courtroom, you should be especially wary of anchoring, the tendency of your brain to weight the first information you receive more heavily.

You should also beware of confirmation bias, a very common form of cognitive bias. The phenomenon of confirmation bias explains why people tend to ignore information which does not fit with their beliefs while they weight agreeable information more heavily. Another common cognitive bias is the fundamental attribution error, in which people ascribe behaviors to people's personalities, rather than social and environmental factors.

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Discuss this Article

anon340925
Post 8

@Cupcake: Just because you're not liberal doesn't means others mustn't be! And, yeah, (talk about projection!), your views are the only correct ones? And, finally, criticizing Obama when you all had to suffer loopy Bush all those years.

anon158991
Post 6

Cupcake - I think you should read the projection bias paragraph again before saying what most Americans abhor.

Lots of liberals have been disappointed with how timid Obama has been compared to what they hoped for.

subway11
Post 5

Cafe41-This type of poll will tend to be more liberal and give the appearance that the conservative viewpoint is less important.

This is why overconfidence bias or framing bias is a big problem. Polls in general should be taken with a grain of salt because we have to know all of the factors that went into conducting a poll before we can determine if it's accurate or not.

The pollster may even try to influence the outcome by asking leading questions or under or oversampling a particular segment of the population.

This is why we should gather our own information for a variety of sources in order to make the determination of which candidate is best. We should avoid jumping on a bandwagon because as we can see that with Obama the results of such flawed thinking can be disastrous.

cafe41
Post 4

Sunny27-Also this cognitive bias might be demonstrated by an unusually large sample of one particular segment of the population. This oversampling of this particular segment will skew the results to create the bias that the researcher was looking for.

For example, when conducting political polls, some polls may have 70% Democrat responding while only sampling about 30% of Republicans. Such a disparity in the sampling invalidates the poll and starts to develop a cognitive bias in the media so that people will think that a certain person is actually ahead in the polls when in reality they may be behind.

Sunny27
Post 3

Cupcake15-Sometimes cognitive bias questionnaires are very blatant. Sometimes researchers will ask a question in a leading fashion that will get you to answer the question in the way that the researcher would like.

They frame the question in such a way that is almost certain that you'll respond the way the researcher would like. This is flawed research but it does occur especially in many political questionnaires.

cupcake15
Post 2

Moldova- Many people voted for Obama because he was leading in most of the major polls and they wanted to vote for the winner. This thinking can be very dangerous because people are following a herd mentality and not thinking for themselves.

As a result, we elected a president that had very little experience running anything, with questionable associations and a very liberal agenda that most Americans abhor.

The fact that people didn't do their homework with regards to Obama is really one of the reasons why we have to be careful with cognitive bias and should consider a cognitive bias modification.

Moldova
Post 1

The psychology cognitive bias definition can really be illustrated in political races with polling data. Often constant political polling data has a way of influencing voters.

For example, in the quest for the Republican nomination for president with a presidential race of 2008, Rudy Giuliani was polling ahead and was considered to be the front runner in almost a shoe in for the nomination.

But as the press continued to criticize Giuliani, as well as demonstrating polling data that was unfavorable to Giuliani, Giuliani then lost his front runner status.

In a state of Florida, for example, John McCain was polling number one in the state, so many Giuliani supporters decided to go and vote for John McCain because they wanted to vote for the winning candidate. The same could be said of the actual presidential election of 2008.

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